In October 2023, the American Museum of Natural History in New York announced that it would remove all human remains currently on public view; these displays represent a fraction of the remains of around 12,000 individuals in its collections. The decision comes alongside increased scrutiny over how museums present and steward human remains, from public displays of anatomy and pathology at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia and the Hunterian Museum in London to collections long in storage with connections to eugenics and scientific racism like a brain collection at the Smithsonian Institution. A report by ProPublica published in January 2023 stated that decades after the 1990 passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), more than 110,000 remains of Native American, Native Hawaiian, and Alaska Natives are still in museums, universities, and federal agencies.
Whether ancient mummies taken from Egypt, shrunken heads from South America facilitated by violent colonial trading, anatomical specimens obtained without consent, or bones looted from graves, presenting human remains in the setting of a museum has regularly turned individuals into objects. Questions over their value for research continue to come into conflict with the ethics of possessing the dead, especially as those who were posthumously turned into museum objects rarely had the same power as those who were collecting their remains. This JSTOR reading list includes a range of views on this broad topic of human remains in museums, including examinations of the rise of anatomical museums, the limitations of current repatriation laws, the frequently racist histories of these collections, and the connection of newer displays like Body Worlds to this lineage of displaying the human body for both science and entertainment.
Ellen Adams, “Defining and Displaying the Human Body: Collectors and Classics during the British Enlightenment,” Hermathena 187 (Winter 2009): 65–97.
Ellen Adams examines how art and medicine overlapped during the Enlightenment in Great Britain, including how human remains and fragments of ancient sculpture were presented together in house-museums formed by collectors. Her exploration of how Classical archaeological pieces were exhibited and the interest in classification and anatomy includes a discussion of surgeon John Hunter, whose collection is now at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London. “The process of naming or labelling objects in displays was standard for antiquities, while medical remains were deliberately de-personalized—the display of body parts was somewhat more palatable if they were objectified to the extent that they became anonymous,” Adams writes.
Samuel J. M. M. Alberti, “Objects and the Museum,” Isis 96, no. 4 (December 2005): 559–571.
Samuel J. M. M. Alberti’s broad survey of how the meaning of objects is changed when they enter museums includes a consideration of human remains, such as those in anatomical museums that were frequently acquired from patients at teaching hospitals without consent. “Human remains collected from elsewhere moved along the same acquisition routes as plants, animals, and books, in the process shifting from subject to object,” he writes. He also notes that the response to the display of human remains has shifted over time, as it has for other museum displays, based on the relationship between the viewer and what is exhibited and how.
Gabriel Moshenska, “Unrolling Egyptian Mummies in Nineteenth-Century Britain,” The British Journal for the History of Science 47, no. 3 (September 2014): 451–477.
In January 1834, surgeon Thomas Pettigrew hosted one of his events that were causing a sensation in London: a mummy unrolling. This Egyptian mummy, which was dramatically unfurled at the Royal College of Surgeons from its bandages for a public audience, then went on view at the Hunterian Museum. Gabriel Moshenska examines the spectacle of these human remains in nineteenth-century Britain. “Egyptian mummies were exotic objects, souvenirs, museum exhibits, scientific or medical specimens, experimental objects, archaeological sites, texts, cadavers and finally individuals: like the relics of saints, mummies were both people and things, parts and wholes,” he writes of these remains that continue to be showpieces for contemporary museums.
Lisa O’Sullivan and Ross L. Jones, “Two Australian Fetuses: Frederic Wood Jones and the Work of an Anatomical Specimen,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 89, no. 2 (Summer 2015): 243–266.
Human remains in museum collections have frequently been recognized as specimens rather than individuals, taking away their identities as parts of a family and community. It is in this context that Lisa O’Sullivan and Ross L. Jones consider the case of two Indigenous Australian fetal specimens who appear in a 1933 issue of the Journal of Anatomy and were described by British anatomist Frederic Wood Jones, who collected numerous remains of Aboriginal people that became part of several museums. “The fetuses take their place in broader debates about the use of dead body parts, particularly organs in medical practice; an understanding of postcolonial legacies of collections of Indigenous biological material; displays of human bodies and body parts in public contexts; and ownership of biological materials,” they state.
Stephen C. Kenny, “The Development of Medical Museums in the Antebellum American South: Slave Bodies in Networks of Anatomical Exchange,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 87, no. 1 (Spring 2013): 32–62.
“Museums are an important part of the story of the development of medical education and the medical profession in the United States, and the appropriation of slave bodies emerged as a central element of their growth in the South,” writes Stephen C. Kenny in an article that thoroughly investigates how enslaved people were used by medical colleges and to build museum collections. As Kenny emphasizes, this practice reinforced racial hierarchies in the American South, where white people had far more power in assuring their bodies would not be autopsied and dissected into specimens for study and display. The article also highlights why museums were established at many medical colleges in the nineteenth century to promote and give credibility to the medical profession.
Wendi A. Lindquist, “Stealing from the Dead: Scientists, Settlers, and Indian Burial Sites in Early-Nineteenth-Century Oregon,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 115, no. 3 (Fall 2014): 324–343.
After Chinook leader Comcomly died in 1830, his skull was stolen from his grave in 1835 by Hudson Bay Company physician Meredith Gairdner. It was sent to fellow physician John Richardson in Great Britain, where it became part of the museum at the Royal Naval Hospital in Haslar, England. Wendi A. Lindquist centers the story of Comcomly’s skull, from its theft to its display and journey to the Smithsonian Institution in 1956 and finally to its reinterment in 1972, in an examination of the use of looted skulls in the racist pseudoscience of phrenology and how remains and objects taken from graves became the basis of this research in museums in the nineteenth century. Writing about the US Exploring Expedition that collected “ethnographical specimens” for the future Smithsonian Institution, Lindquist observes that “although the museum planned to allow scholars access to the objects, the skulls would serve primarily as symbols of the strange and ‘savage’ people encountered throughout the voyage.”
Louis Menand, “Morton, Agassiz, and the Origins of Scientific Racism in the United States,” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 34 (Winter 2001–2002): 110–113.
American physician Samuel George Morton used the hundreds of human skulls he collected—now the Samuel G. Morton Cranial Collection at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology—to classify and rank human races by their supposed measurements. His racist and scientifically unsound studies were widely published and circulated. Louis Menand highlights how this scientific racism influenced Swiss-born biologist Louis Agassiz when he visited Morton and his collection in 1846, writing that “Morton’s skulls had made an impression. But Morton’s ideas about race were also appealing to Agassiz because they were entirely consistent with his own theory of natural history.”
Ricardo Roque, “Authorised Histories: Human Remains and the Economies of Credibility in the Science of Race,” Kronos 44 (November 2018): 69–85.
Collections of human remains and skulls, like those amassed by Morton and others now housed in museums, were meant to be contextualized with biographical data as part of their support of scientific racism. The information that was included or specifically left out was controlled by the collectors to support these beliefs. As Ricardo Roque argues, it is “time to rewrite histories for these collections, to give them a present and a future beyond the tropes of the colonial and racialised ‘little histories’ usually associated with them,” especially when this data is continuing to be used by current scholars and for repatriation.
Friedrich Pöhl, “Assessing Franz Boas’ Ethics in His Arctic and Later Anthropological Fieldwork,” Études Inuit Studies 32, no. 2 (2008): 35–52.
In examining influential anthropologist Franz Boas’s collecting for museums, which included the exploitation of people in the Arctic and desecration of Northwest Coast graves, Friedrich Pöhl situates his practices during a time of high demand for human remains for museums in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. “People violated ethical and religious boundaries without a second thought,” Pöhl writes, “ignoring completely the meaning the dead of a supposedly primitive culture might hold for the living.” Boas’s research trips included work for the American Museum of Natural History, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the Bureau of American Ethnology, the United States National Museum, and others, with Pöhl quoting Boas himself as stating, “Besides having scientific value these skeletons are worth money.”
Steven Lee Rubenstein, “Circulation, Accumulation, and the Power of Shuar Shrunken Heads,” Cultural Anthropology 22, no. 3 (August 2007): 357–399.
While some human remains were collected by museums as anatomical or anthropological specimens, others were turned into commodities when amassed as objects of spectacle. How museum collecting changed the popular perception of tsantas, known commonly as shrunken heads, is analyzed by Steven Lee Rubenstein in this article that emphasizes how Europeans trading with the Shuar people in South America led to a loss of their ritual meaning. “Trophies of colonial expansion acquired by Euro-Ecuadorians in the upper Amazon, they are instead presented as trophies of Shuar warfare,” he writes, “so that museums can present themselves not as collectors of shrunken human heads but as collectors of tokens of ‘Shuar culture.’”
James Riding In, “Repatriation: A Pawnee’s Perspective,” American Indian Quarterly 20, no. 2 (Spring 1996): 238–250.
From his perspective as a repatriation advocate with the Pawnee Nation, James Riding In chronicles the evolving challenges of working with museums to return and rebury remains looted from graves. His article was published six years after the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990, recognizing its limitations as some institutions “continued business as usual” while displaying Indigenous remains. His analysis includes an overview of how past legislation enabled the theft and display of remains and burial objects, such as the Antiquities Act of 1906. “With such laws stipulating the placement of remains, burial offerings, and other unearthed objects in public institutions forever, universities, state historical societies, museums, and federal agencies became mausoleums,” he writes.
Andrew Gulliford, “Bones of Contention: The Repatriation of Native American Human Remains,” The Public Historian 18, no. 4 (Autumn 1996): 119–143.
“It is no accident that vast collections of skeletal remains, grave goods, and Indian artifacts came to repose in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History along with elephant tusks, ostrich eggs, and reptile skins,” observes Andrew Gulliford, reflecting on how graverobbing of Indigenous burial sites became an accepted practice in scientific study, even leading to museums competing to control burial mounds. After looking back at the foundation of many American museum collections on Native American human remains, he cites recent returns following the passage of NAGPRA, although his affirmation that the “long-term storage of Native American human remains begun in the nineteenth century is over” now reads as optimistic nearly three decades later.
Julia A. Cryne, “NAGPRA Revisited: A Twenty-Year Review of Repatriation Efforts,” American Indian Law Review 34, no. 1 (2009–2010): 99–122.
In this overview of twenty-five years of repatriation efforts under NAGPRA, Julia A. Cryne notes its limitations and shortcomings, such as the lack of enforcement penalties for meeting deadlines to notify tribes of remains, the limited scope in focusing on museums that receive federal funding, and the permission for only federally recognized tribes to request repatriation of remains. “It is a law almost entirely without teeth,” Cryne argues. “The complete lack of mechanisms to ensure compliance is counterproductive to the core purpose of the Act: to allow for repatriation of Indian remains and sacred objects.”
Sonya Atalay, “Indigenous Archaeology as Decolonizing Practice,” American Indian Quarterly 30, no. 3/4 (Summer–Autumn 2006): 280–310.
In reflecting on decolonizing archaeology in this history of stolen heritage, Sonya Atalay writes, “We must ask questions such as, What does it mean to have one’s history, story, or knowledge examined, interpreted, and displayed by ‘outsiders’? Who has access to this knowledge? Who has the right to examine it, to write about it?” Atalay discusses the role of museums in the context of this need for a transformation of the field, especially as at the same time Indigenous people were being forcibly relocated, stripped of their religions, and killed in warfare, anthropologists, archaeologists, and other collectors were stealing their remains for study and exhibitions in museums across the globe.
Katie Stringer Clary, “Human Remains in Museums Today,” History News 73, no. 4 (Autumn 2018): 12–19.
As Katie Stringer Clary observes, although many museums have human remains in their collections, whether full skeletons, mummies, artifacts made from bones, or less obvious objects like Victorian memorial hair wreaths, “there are few clear legal or ethical guidelines that apply to all collections.” While NAGPRA in 1990 offered some protection to Native American graves and looted objects, “there are no similar museum guidelines for remains of people of African, European, Asian, or other ethnic descent.” This is still the case years after the publication of this article, which gives a detailed summary of human remains in American museums and museums around the world, with Clary concluding that museums must focus on “respect and consent” in addressing the ethical issues of these collections.
Uli Linke, “Touching the Corpse: The Unmaking of Memory in the Body Museum,” Anthropology Today 21, no. 5 (October 2005): 13–19
The touring Body Worlds display of dissected bodies is among the most sensational and controversial anatomical exhibitions of the twenty-first century, particularly because of its shadowy sourcing of corpses without clear donor consent. It has subsequently inspired numerous copycats. Uli Linke focuses on its presentation in Germany, “where the contact with mutilated corpses, previously evocative of war and genocide, has been rendered safe in the cocooned space of the museum.” These corpses have been preserved with a plastination process that gives them an appearance of life yet reduces their presence as individuals, which Linke sees as a contrast to earlier anatomical museum displays. “The dead, robbed of their humanity, display their seemingly un-dead bodies with a scientific objectivity that undoes and negates the museum’s task of memory production,” he writes.
Nadja Durbach, “‘Skinless Wonders’: ‘Body Worlds’ and the Victorian Freak Show,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 69, no. 1 (January 2014): 38–67.
Although Body Worlds has sparked a range of responses, from outrage to fascination, Nadja Durbach argues that it has a direct line back to nineteenth-century “freak shows” in its attempt to merge education and entertainment. “They are both examples of the dynamic relationship between the popular and professional cultures of the body that we often erroneously think of as separate and discrete,” Durbach writes. In situating the work of Gunther von Hägens, the German anatomist who organized Body Worlds, in this context, she highlights the history of anatomical display as entertainment, whether in museums, curiosity cabinets, or individuals like Joseph Merrick exhibiting himself as the “Elephant Man” in the 1880s.